What we learned from sailing across the Pacific Ocean
“𝐎𝐧 𝐦𝐲 𝐥𝐞𝐟𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐢𝐬 𝐰𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐫. 𝐎𝐧 𝐦𝐲 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐢𝐬 𝐰𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐫. 𝐈 𝐚𝐦 𝐬𝐮𝐫𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐝 𝐛𝐲 𝐰𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐫.” 𝐒𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐚 𝐋𝐞𝐞𝐦, 𝐂𝐎𝐏𝟐𝟏, 𝐃𝐞𝐜𝐞𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫 𝟏𝟏, 𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟓.
This weekend we finally reached the waters of Palau. It has been close to 5 weeks since we left the Suva Harbour in Fiji. It has been close to 5 weeks since the floor wasn’t moving. Since the milk in my breakfast bowl didn’t shift from one side to the other. And in a couple of days, we’ll get off the Statsraad Lehmkuhl tall ship and say our goodbyes. To each other and to the 109-year-old ship that has been our floating home.
The University of Bergen adventure onboard started way before 5 weeks ago, however. On May 1, close to 90 students and a few lecturers went onboard in Chile and set sail straight towards the West, to cross the largest ocean in the world and end up in Palau 4 months later. And here we are.
A four-month interdisciplinary university course on sustainability, focused on ocean, climate and society. A floating university. A university at sea. All while working in watches 8 hours every day and every night to make sure the ship is sailing. The very essence of what the One Ocean Expedition which this ship’s circumnavigation of the world is all about.
𝐖𝐚𝐬 𝐢𝐭 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐭?
As discussions are flying high back home in Bergen in the news about the use of such an experience, and whether local politicians and people in leadership roles should get paid to jump onboard in Japan, the students on the other side of the world have completed their last reflective assignments looking back at their experience and learning.
Perhaps it can be useful to share some lessons learnt to the politicians and leaders just as they dust off their backpacks from an interrail trip in the 90s.
𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐝𝐢𝐝 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐭𝐮𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐬 𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧?
“Nothing and everything, all at once” they said. These students have been working on some of the most current and difficult questions for four months: What is sustainable development? What is sustainability? What is my role? What is everybody else’s role?
35 of the students stayed with me in Fiji for 3 weeks to learn about life in Fiji while focusing on climate action. This was their first time in Fiji. First time they saw what changes in the climate will do in the Pacific. For many, it was a realization of how incredibly important a country’s social structures and political system are and how connected these are to the health and wealth of their environment and people.
Sustainability is not only about climate change, though, which is another thing they realized. Sustainability is contextual. Sustainability is an individual act as much as a way of thinking. Sustainability is environment. Sustainability is social. Sustainability is people. Sustainability is nothing and everything all at once.
𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐜𝐚𝐧 𝐰𝐞 𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧?
The Statsraad Lehmkuhl ship is 100 meters long. There is nowhere else to go. Every evening, after dinner, students and crew gather on deck and watch the sun set. We sit in groups and talk. We look to our right. There is water. We look to our left. There is water. We are surrounded by water. We share life stories. Good and bad. We talk about our day. We talk about what we learnt. We reflect on the questions raised in our lectures about marine biology, climate science, politics, ecological knowledge, law, and psychology. We discuss context. We agree. We disagree. But we talk and we listen. No use in settling the discussion with a Google search – there is no Wifi. We are forced to speak to each other. We talk until it is too dark to see anything and the only thing you have left to focus your attention on is the voice next to you.
𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐜𝐚𝐧 𝐛𝐞 𝐚𝐜𝐡𝐢𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐝 𝐛𝐲 𝐩𝐮𝐭𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐚 𝐠𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐩 𝐨𝐟 𝐩𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐢𝐚𝐧𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐢𝐧 𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐩𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐫 𝐢𝐧 𝐡𝐚𝐦𝐦𝐨𝐜𝐤𝐬 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐚 𝐟𝐞𝐰 𝐰𝐞𝐞𝐤𝐬?
Nothing, or everything. They decide. But we can make demands on the outcomes. Make them talk. Make them tired. Make them think. Make them answer the same questions as the students several times: What is sustainable development? What is sustainability? What is my role? What is everybody else’s role? But make them give us answers and a concrete outcome – because that is their job. Make the trip worth the money it costs for them to join and their flights’ emissions.
For me, it has been a one-of-a-kind adventure and learning experience. And not just for me, but close to 100 colleagues and students as well. It is an experience that will shape these 90 students’ lives in 90 different ways. When they were asked about what the best way to learn about issues connected to sustainability was, two of the most important points raised by all the students were education and political action. One needs the other. They are interdependent.
Only the people joining the ship can decide what they actually take with them when they take their steps on solid ground again. Lecturers on this course have educated these students to our best ability and raised awareness of the power of knowledge and the power of experience. These are the same people who maybe in the future will be part of a group of politicians and other leaders.
The ship is tiny on the Pacific Ocean. We are surrounded by water. But the discussions and learning onboard can be immense exactly because of this and I hope all those privileged enough to experience it live up to the true opportunity it is!
This article was first published on Borrevik's Facebook page, and in the journal Khrono.